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Public Theology: Obama Should Go Visit His Own Pastor
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Obama Should Go Visit His Own Pastor
The mainline media have screened out the mainline Protestants, the tradition of Barack Obama. So the public sphere is skewed toward conservative religion.

By Ed Knudson

Any president has to be clearly aware of and be able to correctly manipulate the public symbolic life of the country. This is very difficult to do in a diverse society but elections depend upon it. The current Republican primary contest includes two Catholic candidates who are trying to explicitly use religious words and symbols appealing to Catholic and religious right voters. It also includes one candidate whose Morman faith makes him less able to explicitly use Christian symbols which has made his campaign difficult since the Republican Party is so completely dominated these days by religious right voters.

The broad frame of public discourse on religion has been established primarily by the conservative side in current politics. This frame sets up a conflict between the religious and the secular; it is conservative religion that sets the terms of debate over against those who are not religious. Journalists claiming to write objectively about religion in politics tend to use this framework. For example, coverage of President Obama's remarks at the recent annual prayer breakfast found it difficult to ascribe to Obama credibility in speaking of his religious faith. It was as if he didn't have a warrant to speak of religion since he is a Democrat. And Democrats seem to be opposed by both Catholic bishops and religious right leaders these days. The journalists can cite polls showing the more religious a person claims to be the more likely they will vote for a Republican.

But the journalists don't realize the degree to which they have become advocates in their writings of the conservative view. They do not understand the full dimensions of religion in public life especially the role of what I call the primary Protestants.

There are three basic categories of Christian faith in the history of the nation. The first is the primary Protestants, those who trace their identity to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. These are what people call the "mainline denominations" today, such as the Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ and American Baptists. These are the churches which still have their church buildings located in towns and cities across the country, often in or near the downtown centers. These primary Protestants have been at the center of the religious history of the country. Those other religious groups outside these primary Protestants were understood as "sects" or "cults" not representing the primary symbolic life of the country.

With the waves of immigration of Roman Catholics from Europe that church became the second major category of religious experience in the nation. Since the primary religious identity of the nation was Protestant, and since Catholics were often associated with ethnic neighborhoods, it is only more recently that Roman Catholics have fully entered into the political life of the country, symbolized by the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.

The third major category is the most recent, what is called evangelical Christianity which includes Southern Baptists, those churches who call themselves "non-denominational" or fundamentalist or pentecostal. Though they have many differences, these various groups can be best understood, I think, with reference to the single most important figure in recent popular Christianity, Billy Graham. It is Graham's evangelical crusades which have created the main image of what Christianity represents. It is in the wake of Billy Graham that all the other versions of evangelical Christianity have developed in the last several decades including the emergence of the television preachers in the 1980s such as the late Jerry Falwell who was with Graham a Southern Baptist.

President Obama made a major mistake when he decided to make a pilgrimage to see the elderly Billy Graham and his mention of this visit in his recent prayer breakfast message. It is Graham who placed at the center of his preaching the idea of the religious versus the secular, who identified his mission and ministry with national exceptionalism, who made the center of his message the urgency of victory of the United States over the terrible evil of atheistic Communism. The basic framework of this Cold War rhetoric has not gone away but defines the thinking and speaking of religious right leaders today though the definitions of the enemy have changed.

In the early 1950s Billy Graham was just getting started with his evangelical crusades in Los Angeles. He preached that the United States had to "turn to Christ" otherwise the Russians would send nuclear bombs over New York and Los Angeles. The media magnate William Randolph Hearst was so impressed he sent a memo to his reporters: "Puff Graham." This encouraged his reporters to write glowing stories about the evangelist because, Hearst believed, he was good for the country.

The major media continued to play a crucial role in advancing the career of Billy Graham; he was the "major news" about religion in the decades since, and thus it is the media in this country which has actually promoted a particular form of Christian faith, a form that accents a "decision for Christ" and "accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior." A believer who uses such language is a "true Christian" and one who does not is not and on the side of secularists and atheists.

Though Graham himself changed many of his views about war and Communism and did not attack the primary Protestants, those television preachers and other religious right leaders who followed him did, indeed, engage in systematic attacks on them. President Obama came to faith in one of those primary Protestant denominations, the United Church of Christ, a congregation of which Jeremiah Wright was pastor on the southside of Chicago. For most primary Protestants it is baptism not a "decision for Christ" that defines membership in the church. Obama in his speeches about religion and race has demonstrated a nuanced understanding of faith. He speaks, for example, of how the stories of the bible have become his stories, which reflects his understanding of the power of narrative in theology. He has referred to Reinhold Niebuhr as one of his favorite theologians, one of the foremost theologians of the 20th century, whose profound understanding of sin and evil included the dangers of religious zealotry and national hubris. My own sense is that if Obama was able to focus on his own faith journey and his own heritage he could make a significant contribution to more helpful public discourse about religion in public life.

But he is not doing that. He chooses to speak about Billy Graham which only alienates him from the religious right because it rejects Obama's religious origins, and causes confusion for the rest of the country which no longer grasps the meanings and traditions of the primary Protestants. The latter have utterly failed to organize themselves in such a way as to be able to create a primary Protestant voice in the symbolic life of the nation. This leaves Obama standing almost alone representing a faith tradition which has been systematically removed from public consciousness by the assumptions and behavior of the media and its single concentration on evangelical religion.

The fact that the media have promoted the wholesale denunciation of Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is proof positive of the degree to which it has adopted the conservative religious view as the standard for reporting on religion in this country. Wright doesn't fit the assumptions of the media, he is a primary Protestant, and all these Protestant bodies now are more amenable to what is called "liberation theology" than is widely known, the very theology undergirding the preaching of Jeremiah Wright. Wright was rejected because of his flamboyant criticism of some of the policies of this country. But this is a characteristic of the primary Protestants these days, a willingness to criticize public policies and promote the liberation of black people, women, and gay and lesbian persons. The great majority of primary Protestant leaders today, if asked to identify the one most important Protestant who worked for justice in society, would answer Martin Luther King, Jr. These leaders reject the thinking and motivations of the continuing political backlash to the civil rights gains of women and blacks in the 1960s. But the views of these leaders are not even considered by media makers today so they could not understand that Jeremiah Wright was not a radical left winger but representative of primary Protestant leadership, as well as serious contemporary biblical and theological scholarship in the seminaries of these denominations.

So Obama would do well to go make a visit to his former pastor, to affirm his religious roots in the black church and also to associate himself explicitly with the history and tradition of the primary Protestants. I think that if it were possible he would like to do it. But politically it has become impossible because the media does not have within its own consciousness a correct understanding of the continuing significance of the primary Protestants. The media, with its orientation of religious versus secular, Republican versus Democrat, a construction from conservative religion, does not see the fullness of religious expression in this country. It thus actually ends up promoting the religiously conservative view and wrongly defining the content and meaning of Christian faith.


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Date Added: 2/25/2012 Date Revised: 3/13/2012

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